12 Years is an innovative music composition played on a vertical Inside-Out Piano with recorded speech to trace the journey of two sisters, exploring their perceptions of global warming through fact and fiction. Ahead of its online performance presented by the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama on the 24th of October, Holly McElroy caught up with Sarah Nicolls to find out more.
Holly McElroy: Tell us about the inspiration behind 12 Years.
Sarah Nicolls: 12 Years was written in 2018 following the IPCC special report about the impact of 1.5°C global warming on the planet. Climate scientists projected that annual emissions needed to be halved by 2030 to stay within this level. In the same year Greta Thunberg initiated her school strike in Sweden and subsequently publicised her call to action as a TED talk.
What effect did scientific warnings about global warming have on you?
Sarah Nicolls: Giving the human race 12 years to halve emissions seemed like a pretty stark deadline to me, especially as my son would turn 18 in 2030, and I felt compelled to bring this information into my work. I felt an urgent response to the IPCC report and as a pianist this resulted in writing a new recital. I wanted to put the piano and the environment together to see what would happen.
Can you explain the narrative of 12 Years?
Sarah Nicolls: This show is a journey for both the audience and my fictional characters. It begins with the deadline – what does 12 (now 10) years feel like? I weave news headlines and interviews about environmental changes into a story about Lara, an Extinction Rebellion activist and her much less political sister Fran. We listen into their phone conversations and their different responses to climate change. As the story unfolds, we go on the journey with Fran as her perceptions towards global warming begin to alter. I wanted to discuss environmental themes (both climate-related and ecological) in a recital without being preachy.
How is 12 Years structured?
Sarah Nicolls: There are 12 tracks in the piece, which reflect the idea of a countdown to 2030. Each track has a different theme, and these include the Camp Fire, which blazed across California in 2018, destroying the town of Paradise. We hear the voices of survivors from this fire as they escape, which killed 85 people. One track focuses on the sound of a melting glacier and the penultimate track features Greta Thunberg. I was interested in how her voice and the urgency of her speech has changed since her first TED talk, with speeches at the DAVOS World Economic Forum and the UN. Finally, we’re urged to consider how we feel, striving for hope and action. My intention is to bring the climate and ecological emergency into an emotional space.
Describe your Inside-Out piano.
Sarah Nicolls: It is like a grand piano tipped up, so the strings are vertical. I play the strings, strum and pluck them like a guitar or harp. I also hit the strings percussively, using a glass ball to make amazing sliding sounds or a rubber ball to get the sound of a whale underwater. I’m always thinking in pictures and 12 Years is a multi- sensory experience: I considered how to make sounds so that you would feel like you’re near a wildfire or a glacier. Fortunately, the piano is so expressive and resonant that it can do all of these things!
There are some amazing people joining you for post-show Zoom chats. Tell us more about them.
Sarah Nicolls: I am so thrilled with the guest speakers and their input is extremely valuable. Following an hour of listening and thinking, my audiences will be able to have an open conversation with the experts. Speakers include Prof. Richard Betts MBE, leader of Climate Impacts at the MET Office, Prof Richard Pancost, Director of the Cabot Institute, Craig Hutton, Professor of Sustainability Science, University of Southampton, Dr Liz Bagshaw, School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, Cardiff University and Dr Sarah Mander from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.
‘Sounds of hope’ emerge towards the end of the performance. How hopeful are you that the global climate crisis can be averted?
Sarah Nicolls: I feel that it is my job as a parent of two children to be hopeful and I believe in our capacity to be empathetic and caring. If people understand what scientists are telling us, and what our options are, along with what trajectories look like, then we can change our impact on the earth. I believe that what is good for the planet is good for us: walking or cycling more, sharing more, being community-minded, thinking local in terms of food production. I do think a fairer society is possible and necessary.
Tell us about your Future Piano.
Sarah Nicolls: This is an amazing lightweight piano that will be built this year. It will be the same shape as the ‘Inside-Out Piano’ but an entirely new piano constructed from lightweight composite materials with the help of extraordinary engineering. It will still be able to be played as a normal piano and give the sound of a grand piano, but in the space of an upright piano. What is revolutionary about Future Piano is that it will weigh less than 100kg and it will be possible to split it in half and easily reassemble it. I will be able to carry it upstairs with a friend!
What affect will Future Piano have for you personally?
Sarah Nicolls: It will make touring so much easier but also means the amount of venues where live piano can be played suddenly opens up. It also means people can choose to move a piano to different rooms in their home. My fantasy is that I will be able to put it in the guard’s van of a train someday: so touring has a much lower carbon footprint. I see my role as trying to make the piano less cumbersome and less historic. To keep this amazing instrument alive and acoustic – with strings – is my dream.
Sarah Nicolls is an innovative pianist and composer. She invented the ‘Inside-out Piano’, a sculptural feast of an instrument which stands 2.5m tall, designed to enable ‘inside piano’ playing. Sarah has been a frequent soloist on the new music scene, performing in events such as the PRSF New Music Biennial, Matthew Herbert’s 20 Pianos project, six world premiere piano concertos with London Sinfonietta. She is regularly broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and features on several CDs.
12 Years can be viewed online on the 22nd – 24th of October from a range of venues.